In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama took some time to talk about preschool, a topic often left out of national policy conversations. He spoke about the positive outcomes for kids who go through a high-quality pre-K program, the challenges many families face to pay for these important programs, and proposed federal-state partnerships to expand access to high-quality pre-K for 4-year-olds. This morning the Administration released a more detailed plan, which includes expanding access to pre-K for 4-year-olds and expanding programs for children from birth through age 3. These are important first steps and a welcome beginning to a national conversation on high-quality, accessible pre-K.

In the State of the Union, the president cited research that shows the positive impact of high-quality preschool and the high return on each dollar invested in children in their early years. For example, he mentioned Oklahoma’s state-funded universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, which a Georgetown study found made children more prepared for school. The return on investment argument has been made convincingly and repeatedly by James Heckman and his co-authors, who studied a group of children who went through the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan from age 3 or 4 to age 40. These studies show that for every dollar invested in this high-quality preschool program, the community saved money on lower incarceration rates and less need for public services, and earned money with higher tax revenues as a result of higher incomes. In fact, the return on money spent to send children through the Perry Program is between 7 and 10 percent, which is significantly higher than the average return on investment in the stock market (typically around 5.8 percent).

Further research is welcome and necessary to explore what makes a program high quality and to find more definitive answers on the importance of pre-K, but that is no reason to delay implementing the president’s plan. While 39 states currently have state-funded pre-K programs, they serve less than 30 percent of 4-year-olds nationwide, and over 40 percent of children who are in state-funded pre-K are enrolled in programs that met fewer than half of ten quality benchmarks, as reported by the National Institute for Early Education Research. With the academic achievement gap between children from low-income families and children from middle- or high-income families beginning before children even enter school, and the cost of private pre-K and childcare consistently rising, it is clear that wider access to high-quality early education is a necessary step toward improving student outcomes.

The Administration’s more detailed plan includes a number of proposals that would expand access to high-quality early education for children from birth to age 5. These include:

  • A cost-sharing partnership between the federal government and all 50 states that will ensure access to pre-K for all 4-year-olds who are living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line;
  • An incentive for states to broaden access to public pre-K programs for all children;
  • Quality requirements, including fully qualified and trained teachers, small class sizes, health and other services, and comprehensive data and assessment systems;
  • A new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program to expand the availability of Early Head Starts and child care for children from birth through age 3, with funds awarded through Early Head Start on competitive basis; and
  • An expansion of the home visiting program that authorizes grants for states to implement and expand programs that target high-risk communities and provide families with in-home education about maternal and child health from nurses and other professionals, which empowers parents to better care for their children and has long-lasting positive effects on child health and development and on parenting skills.

This is an ambitious proposal that would greatly improve birth through age 5 learning for children across this country. So ambitious, in fact, that when James Heckman, the researcher behind the Perry Preschool studies, read the plan he reportedly responded “Holy smokes!”

What remains to be seen is if Congress will take up the President’s challenge to better provide for our youngest children by giving them the chance to learn, grow, and develop in high-quality learning environments. Knowing the importance of the early years for brain development and the positive impact that high-quality pre-K and other early childhood programs can have, as well as the positive impact these investments have for the rest of the country, it may one of the most important issues they consider this year.